The five New Canaan Republicans vying for party backing as three Board of Education seats come up for election this fall shared their views Monday night on topics that included district funding, school start times and the elected body’s role with respect to curriculum.
Carl Gardiner, Suzanne Harrison, Daniel LaGattuta, Bob Naughton and Julie Reeves are seeking GOP endorsement at the Republican caucus, to be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the New Canaan High School gym.
Reeves is seeking to retain a seat she’s held since March, when Hazel Hobbs retired from the Board of Ed, and seats held now by Tom Cronin and Maria Naughton also are up for election. (Maria Naughton is running for Town Council.)
During an approximately 45-minute debate at Town Hall that was attended by more than 70 New Canaan Republicans—including current Board of Ed members, councilmen, Republican Town Committee representatives and municipal officials—the school board candidates introduced themselves and weighed in on some major issues facing the district.
Here’s how they introduced themselves and responded to two key questions posed by moderator Fred Wilms.
- Carl Gardiner said he earned a bachelor’s degree government from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and that he’s worked for 25-pls years in the investment industry. A father of three kids who went through New Canaan Public Schools, Gardiner said his own mother was president of the Board of Education in the town where he grew up, and that in New Canaan he has coached baseball and hockey, served on the New Canaan Baseball board and volunteered as a Sunday school teacher at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. “I am interested in taking on this role because of my mom and I thought I’d put my investment capability to work in this regard. I’ve basically been a financial analyst my whole life, looking at businesses and what makes them profitable and it appears to me the the era of tight budgets is here to stay—sub 2% the last two years—and I would like to put my capabilities to work and figure out how to do that.”
- Suzanne Harrison said her parents moved to New Canaan more than 40 years ago and that she returned 15 years ago with her husband John, and that she’s been involved with the school system for the past 11 years as her three sons have moved through it. “During that time, I have gained a profound respect and understanding for the inner workings of the schools, the faculty and the administration,” Harrison said. “I believe teachers are one of our greatest assets. Think about it, on most days teachers spend more one-on-one time with our children than we do. And they have a unique ability to shape and impact our kids’ futures. Could there be anything more important?” Harrison said she has given the bulk of her spare time to the PTC, PFA, raising money and organizing events and assisting teachers in the classroom.
- Daniel LaGattuta said he and his wife moved to New Canaan in 2010 “for the small town and top-rated schools.” After growing up in Queens, N.Y. and attending the Bronx High School of Science, LaGattuta said he earned a bachelor’s degree in math and political science from New York University and a doctorate degree in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Active locally since moving to New Canaan in Newcomers, as a rec soccer coach, Y Guides and Y Princesses and with the RTC, LaGattuta said said he worked in finance/security litigation in Manhattan for 10 years and then took over an education business in 2009 that provides professional development training for K-12 educators. “I am running for the Board of Education to help maintain educational excellence while at the same time promoting greater transparency and fiscal responsibility. With my background in finance, education, running a small business and town politics, I think that I have the right mix of skills to provide the leadership the Board of Education needs.”
- Bob Naughton said he’s been a New Canaan resident since 2002 and that he and his wife, Maria Naughton, have four children who came through the New Canaan Public Schools system. He said he’s seeking to “carry on her advocacy for greater collaboration between administration and community and to enable the parents’ voice at the table.” A volunteer with New Canaan Baseball and the RTC who also serves in the St. Aloysius Church community at Emmaus, Knights of Columbus and Parish Council, Naughton said he’s a technology executive who for the past nine years has worked for an education assessment company that provides insights on student achievement. “So getting involved in the Board of Education is another great way for me to continue,” he said. “I hope to expand collaboration and encourage to continue to provide quality education in a fiscally responsible manner.”
- Julie Reeves said that after starting her working career in finance, she “eventually found my way to what was my to true love which is teaching middle school math.” Reeves taught for several years, including two at Saxe Middle School, before “taking a sabbatical to raise three our three children,” she said. As a teacher, she also served on district curriculum and hiring committees, in addition to running after school clubs and a district summer program, Reeves said. “So I am familiar with both the management as well as the educational side of schools,” she said. When her youngest entered kindergarten at East School, Reeves said she started teaching at First Presbyterian Nursery School, and then went on to volunteering at church and at East, Saxe and the high school. “So I have been ‘all in,’ as they say, in education for a long time. I joined the Board of Education in March. In my short tenure as a member of the board, I have learned a great deal more about our school district and the people who help make it the best of the best. I am inspired to run for a seat on the Board because I believe that the work that our Board does is critical to our children’s success in and out of school both while they are students here and beyond. I also believe the work of the Board is critical to our town’s fiscal well-being. For property values, as well as our personal pocketbooks.”
Question: The Board of Education budget is approximately $90 million. It represents up to two-thirds of New Canaan’s annual budget, Do you believe that level of spending is too high, too low or about right? Are there specific changes you would seek to make in the school budget or in the school budget process?
- Harrison: “I would say, without having taken a deep dive into the budget of the school system, I think that he budget it is about right. I think there is reason why we have one of most excellent districts in the country and it doesn’t come cheaply, unfortunately. So without knowing a lot about it, I would say that it is just about right. I know that we are considering late start times and my biggest concern with that initiative is how much it is going to cost the town. So I think if we do impose that, the money is going to have to come from somewhere. There is definitely medical science behind it. I think it’s a worthwhile initiative, but I am concerned about the cost of that, and adding it to the budget.”
- LaGattuta: “I think it’s too high. We can save some money on administration costs, that is where I would go first because it’s low-hanging fruit. It doesn’t affect the quality of education of our students. There are many services that both the town and the Board of Ed do—there is payroll, there’s IT functions, there’s purchasing, finance. We are one town, one group of taxpayers, we shouldn’t have separate departments for the town and Board of Ed. There may be some functions, like HR, that maybe it’s important to keep the Board of Ed because of the need for specific skills, but there are a lot of departments to be consolidated and there are cost-savings there. The largest cost, of course, is headcount. While we don’t have any control over the pay scale, because that is negotiated by union contracts, we do have some control over headcount growth and it has exceeded population growth over the last decade, so we need to take a look at that.”
- Reeves: “I have had the good fortune of coming onto the Board of Ed just as budget season was ending, so I was not part of the whole process. But as a parent from the outside my feeling and I would come to the final Town Council and Board of Finance meetings, and I always had the feeling that our children are our biggest asset and sure, this budget is right, and if we could spend more, if we had it—which we don’t, but if we did, to me every penny spent is worth it. Now being on the other side, I understand that there are constraints. But I also know that the process as it is right now is about as tight as it can be and the Board goes over every line with a fine tooth comb, so I feel that we are doing a good job.”
- Bob Naughton: “It’s hard to say, not being super involved with the budget all along the way. I guess I would say it’s a little bit on the high side. The changes I would like to see in the budget process would be to see it more at a line level, a lower level, at the Board of Ed level. I think the Board of Ed does a lot of work with the town bodies as it goes through the process, but I think the Board of Ed itself probably can go into a deeper dive in the budget-making process.”
- Gardiner: “The numbers are, salaries are 66% of the budget, health insurance is 13% of the budget, that leaves 21%. The 66 and 13 are growing at around 3% and you are trying to hit a sub 2% number. So you just have to be creative in finding efficiencies, some of the things Dan talked about, sharing services. The Board of Ed has done some great things on the healthcare front, in terms of getting teachers to participate in shared premium, shared copay, high deductible plan, it’s self-insured. It would be interesting to talk to some of the other towns that are peers about growing that pool, they’d have to do some political work to get it there, their teachers and staff on the same kind of contracts. And I think that all of those initiatives are worthwhile, particularly to keep the autonomy of the schools. The state wants to impose it from above, and for us to be creative on our own initiative to maintain control is important.”
Question: There has been considerable public discussion regarding school start times, and I think some of you have broached that already. Do you support making school start times later or maintaining the current start time and why?
- LaGattuta: “There is lot of evidence—papers and research showing that adolescents have a different natural sleep schedule than people of other ages. They tend to go to bed later, so if you start them at an earlier time, they just get less sleep, and if you move to a later start time, they tend to get more sleep. A later start time means that they are in better physical shape, their mental state—studies show that districts with later start times have fewer car accidents, so there is a safety issue. There is a lot of research that people learn better, you memorize more, you remember things when you are not tired. So that’s very important. And we are spending tens of millions of dollars on our adolescents every year and if they are not functioning optimally, we are wasting a lot of money. And the cost is small relative to our whole budget, so I favor later school start times for our teens.”
- Reeves: “In an absolute sense, I believe as Dan cited medical research and I think it would be great if it worked that we could start school later for our teens. What we have to balance, of course, is how that affects all other constituencies, not just the kids themselves—the high school kids, as parents, we think that would be fabulous—as we know the kids are not ready for change necessarily, so that is an issue. And there are things that we are going to have to look into. As a whole if we could do it without disrupting the apple cart too much that would be great but we know that is not easily done. So I think we just continue to look into it and hopefully come up with a solution that makes the most number of people as happy as possible.”
- Bob Naughton: “I think evidence is clear that late start times are better for adolescents. I know I like to sleep in late. What I definitely would like to see is more input from some of the stakeholders. I feel like some of the late start group might have a lot of different ideas that haven’t been proposed yet. It seems like we have a couple of proposals on the table, but it’s pretty rigid as far as let’s move everybody one way or move everybody the other way, instead of thinking of more creative ways to make this happen where maybe some could sleep in late whereas others could go in early if they wanted. I think there are more ways to look at this than just move the entire school and make elementary school move a different way. I think there’s more work there. I think it’s a great idea but I think just how you get there, we have to look at it deeper.”
- Gardiner: “I have been talking dollars and cents. But like Suzanne said, I think health and wellness is probably the issue. If you look at students seeking psychological help it is through the roof from where it was 20 years ago, and so this issue falls into a larger issue of health and wellness and trying to find ways of helping the students in that way. So with later start times, there is block scheduling, there is rolling out systems so you can better monitor the homework and test burden for students, and the benefit and cost of all these things need to be weighed in terms of what is going to have the most effectiveness. The medical studies are clear. The effectiveness of later start times, new studies, are few and far between and not clear yet. So more work needs to be done.”
- Harrison: “As I mentioned earlier, and as Carl said, the medical data is definitely there. It is sound and it is hard to refute. I definitely support later start times, but within the confines off being fiscally responsible, and I do worry, with a cost of $350,000 to $400,000 a year that escalates year upon year, where that money is going to come from, especially when we are talking about possibly reducing the budget and cutting corners elsewhere. So I definitely support it but the money has to come from somewhere and I worry that it could come at the expense of other programs that are very valuable to students that are already in place.”
Other local offices up for election on Nov. 5 include Town Council and Board of Selectmen. Four Republicans put in for four Council seats currently held by party members. First Selectman Kevin Moynihan and Selectman Nick Williams announced that they’re seeking re-election.
The Democrats take nominations at their own caucus, which also is to be held Tuesday. Craig Donovan has filed to run as a Democrat for first selectman. Selectman Kit Devereaux has said that she will seek re-election as selectman.